From the Whatever Archives: “Holden Caulfield in Middle Age”
Posted on January 28, 2010 Posted by John Scalzi 145 Comments
On the occasion of J.D. Salinger’s passing, I find it appropriate to exhume from the Secret Whatever Archives this essay, entitled “Holden Caulfield in Middle Age” (also available in Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, which you should buy, damn you). Enjoy.
July 18, 2001
Holden Caulfield turned 50 this last week, and if the imaginary, fictional world in which he lives has any parallel with ours, right about now, he’s got a kid who is now the age Holden was in The Catcher in the Rye, and that kid is just driving him nuts. Wouldn’t that be a kick.
I never got Holden Caulfield anyway. This partially due to having my own reading tastes bend towards science fiction as a teen rather than the genre of Alienated Teen Literature, of which Catcher is, of course, the classic. If you were going to give me a teenage hero, give me Heinlein’s Starman Jones: He traveled the galaxy and memorized entire books of log tables and became Captain of a starship (for procedural reasons, granted). All Holden did was bitch, bitch, bitch. Put Holden at the controls of a starship and he’d implode from stress. Not my hero, thanks.
(Actually, if you’re going to give me a teenage hero, give me Joan of Arc. There’s an achiever for you: Kicks English tail and saves France, despite suffering from profound schizophrenia (Shaw argues that the voices were an expression of the “Evolutionary Appetite,” but in truth, there’s no reason they couldn’t be both). Thank God she wasn’t born in the 20th century; they would have medicated her ass into catatonia, and then the Germans would have been able to roll right over the French forces at the start of WWII! Hmmmmm.)
But it’s also partially due to the nature of Holden, and my own nature as well. Holden is justly famous in the literary pantheon as being the first major teenage literary character to be allowed to note that the world was a tremendously screwed up place, and to have an intellectually appropriate response to that fact. All the other literary teens of the age were solving low-grade mysteries or having boy’s own adventures or what not, and, golly, they were always polite and respectful to their elders. Holden was the proverbial turd in that punchbowl, and arriving as he did in the early 50s, just in time for rock n’ roll and the first mass teen market, he offered the blueprint and pathology for teenage sullenness that’s still fervently followed to this day (although, admittedly, the tattoos and piercings these days are a new touch).
However, I was not especially pained as a teen, and all attempts in that direction ended up as sort of twee, rather than genuinely dark and isolating. It was too bad, really, since I was all set up to accept Holden as a soul mate. I mean, I went to boarding school, I was somewhat sensitive, I had all that bundled up energy of wanting to change the world and not knowing quite how to do it. But I just didn’t have that certain something — mistrust of society, desire for someone to encapsulate all my inexpressible teenage emotions, basically suspicious and snotty nature, or whatever — that would make me go cookoo for Caulfield. I suppose it’s a shortcoming. I failed angst in high school. They let me graduate anyway.
Fact is, I liked neither Holden nor the book. One can recognize the book has a certain literary merit without needing to like the thing, of course. But it’s more to the point to say that Holden has a certain fundamental passivity that I dislike — the desire for people and things to be different without the accompanying acceptance of personal responsibility to effect those changes. To go back to Heinlein and his juvy novels, his teenage characters are not very big on internal lives, but they’re also the sort who go out, do things, fail, do things again, and eventually get it right. Holden merely wishes, ultimately a man of inaction. He’s a failure — a particularly attractive failure if you’re of a certain age and disposition, admittedly, but a failure nonetheless. I remember reading the book as a teen and being irritated with Holden for that reason; I couldn’t see why he required any sympathy from me, or why I should empathize with him.
It’s been a fortunate thing that Salinger has sat back and rested on his increasingly thorny laurels for the last several decades, because in doing so he’s spared us inevitable Catcher sequel, in which we learn whatever happened to that freaky Caulfield kid. Here’s what I think. After a certain amount of time faking being deprogrammed, Holden goes to Brown and after graduation eventually gets a job at an ad firm, where, thanks to his ability to pitch products to “the kids,” he does very well. He gets married, has a couple of kids, gets divorced, becomes a high-functioning alcoholic but is nevertheless eased towards the door with a generous buyout, and after that — well, after that, who cares? Sooner or later, the rest of one’s life becomes a coda.
Big Holden fans will no doubt be upset with the life of hypocritical mediocrity I’ve provided for their anti-hero, but really, unless he committed suicide shortly after the end of the novel (not at all unlikely, given his creator’s literary tendencies), he has to have caved. He was too passive to do otherwise. No Holden fan would be at all satisfied with this, of course — which may be one of the reasons Salinger packed it in. It’s better for everyone involved if Holden’s life coda begins before he’s out of his teens. Everyone walks away happy, except, of course, for Holden himself. But that’s as it should be.
And this about nailed it on the head as to why I couldn’t stand reading Catcher in the Rye in high school. He never *did* anything about his problems except mope (if I remember correctly) and I still have little patience for people like that. I’ve also always been more partial to the action of sf/f.
It didn’t frustrate me nearly as much as reading Death of a Salesman three times (10th, 11th, and 12th grade) did however. Thankfully, I had a teacher who was willing to listen to my disagreement that it be considered a modern tragedy and literary classic. At least Greek tragedies like Oedipus Rex were mildly entertaining.
My feelings about the book and Holden Caulfield are the same, but you expressed it much better than I ever could.
I prefer to believe that upon growing up young master Caulfield did not sell out. Instead, I like to think he was in a terrible accident, mangled beyond all hope, and then had his bodily tissues used to create a new prototype cybernetic police officer.
Then, living in an amoral society bent on corporate greed and shallow consumption, Holden would finally realize his dream of saving people. Even going so far as to overpower the initiatives of his corporate overlords and protect the people of New Detroit against their nihilistic whims.
You had me at Starman Jones!
Still a great read, although clearly ol’ Bob’s future crystal ball didn’t show him that we’d develop machines to do all that math LONG before we developed a fusion torch or hyperdrive. I have my dad’s 1953 first-printing hardcover of it, wish I’d been able to get it autographed.
Never read Catcher either, as I was well-ensconced in Asimov/Heinlein/Bradbury/Clarke by 5th grade, and the book was banned from our little tiny high school because the local Daughters of the American Revolution though it too “salacious” for mere children to be reading. Sounds like I’d have tossed it after 3 chapters.
I read it. Don’t remember anything about it. It left no impression on me whatsoever. Also, I’m a girl (who also failed angst in high school), so maybe I just didn’t *get it*. I preferred To Kill A Mockingbird.
I’m with you on Holden, and Catcher in the Rye. I couldn’t figure out why he kept complaining so much when he had freedoms that I couldn’t begin to imagine. He was traveling by himself on a train, staying in New York City in a hotel room on his own, chatting up teenage call girls, etc.
When I was 20 years old I wanted to ride a bus from Wash DC to Baltimore to meet up with some college friends to see a Peter Gabriel concert, and my parents made it into a family crisis. My father took me to the bus station and stood guard over me so nothing would happen and waited while I boarded. They acted like they’d never see me again.
Great essay. This almost makes me want to read the book, which I skipped growing up. As a relatively happy teen, I probably wouldn’t have gotten that much out of the book, either, but I was wondering, are there any *female* versions of Holden that are at the same literary level as the Salinger one?
I think there is, and here is a future quote, possibly written by your daughter in 50 years:
“It’s been a fortunate thing that Stephenie Meyer has not sat back and rested on her increasingly thorny laurels for the last several decades, because in doing so she’s written lots of sequels in which we learn everything that ever happened to that freaky Bella kid.”
“because in doing so he’s spared us inevitable Catcher sequel”
Of course, last year when someone else wrote a sequel, Salinger had his lawyers speak for him.
But, yes, at least we were spared Salinger’s version of Closing Time (Heller’s sequel to Catch-22).
Why, I wonder, is it appropriate to exhume this piece now? In order to cash in on Salinger’s death by urging your readers to go buy your book? That seems more than a little crass, and rather negates the sympathies you expressed in your previous post.
Love it, especially “cookoo for Caulfield.” But I’ve always loved his books about the Glass family.
“In order to cash in on Salinger’s death by urging your readers to go buy your book?”
BUY MY BOOK NOW AT ALL FINE BOOKSTORES.
THE GHOST OF J.D. SALINGER COMMANDS YOU.
Alternately, I suspect you’re making a little too much over the notation that this essay is available in the book, and an intentionally silly “damn you” exhortation to purchase said book following it.
Holden Caulfield was a spoiled whiner. I never wanted to smack the crap out of a character more in all my reading life.
I’m sorry to hear of JD’s passing, but as far as I’m concerned Catcher in the Rye remains to this day: Worst. Book. Ever.
I agree with Randi @5. Give me To Kill a Mockingbird any day over this trash.
LOL John, well done.
So, Holden Caulfield grows up to be Don Draper?
I kind of thought the point was to find Caulfield unappealing, so we wouldn’t make the same mistake. Even if you didn’t like the little bitch, he stuck with you.
Joan may have been in communion with God, or another reality of some sort. You never know.
Heinlein’s teenagers were a nice way to start for me. Podkayne of Mars was my first. It is also, coincidentally a book (re-issue) that contains the story of how it’s my first sf book. A strangly circular happening. An honor for me.
I related to Franny from Franny and Zooey more. She at least tries to do something.
Holden annoyed me in the same way that Don Quixote annoyed me.
John — Salinger published a story during WWII, several years before Catcher came out, in which the main character, Vincent Caulfield, learns that his younger brother Holden has been reported MIA and is presumed dead.
I seriously haven’t read the book in likely 25 or more years and don’t recall the story at all. I think someone drowned in a river or committed suicide or something? Oh, wait, that’s every other teenaged angst book I ever read.
Got to admire JDS though. He did exactly what he wanted to do with his life, fans be damned.
I recognize the literary significance of the book, but I didn’t respond very well to it. For the reasons you’ve given, I found Holden extremely dull.
Also, I was a student from a working-class family attending public school, and there my teacher was, telling me I was supposed to identify with a spoilt rich boy who did nothing but complain about how the world, handed to him on a silver platter, wasn’t good enough for him. While I can recognize the literary merit of the book now, it’s never been my cuppa.
So, Catcher in the Rye is actually time travel and/or alternate history?
I read both Catcher and On the Road in middle age. I didn’t like Holden, but got the book. Mainly because a lot of us go through that angsty “everyone’s a phony” phase where the world turns out to be something other than what we thought it was. I didn’t like Sal Paradise, who is just young enough to have been Holden’s contemporary because, frankly, the guy was an unrepentant slacker who destroyed property and didn’t care if he knocked someone up. Nor did I care for the book.
I thought I was just wanting Holden and Sal to get off my lawn, but no. My stepson is 15 and has no patience for the Holdens and Sals of the world.
I really hated Catcher when I had to read it in high school (Twice! Due to changing schools after 9th grade) for exactly these reasons. Life honestly didn’t seem that terrible back then.
Then I read it again during my sophomore year in college and was blown away, possibly because I became an unhappier person.
That having been said, what way was there for Holden not to “cave”. Would he have to become a galaxy-hopping man of action? The life you described for him, drinking himself to death, actually seems like the totally heroic end of the character.
The way he’d “cave” or “lose” would by doing what boomers actually did…becoming kind of cranky but mostly content. By being happy with his ad job and his family, and quietly a little proud of the world his rebellion created. Wait, no, I mean loudly and annoyingly proud.
Not a big Catcher fan, though the literary allusion in the title was fun to track down.
Don Draper is a bit of a “man of action” himself and also has a wildly different backround from Holden.
What’s with the put down of Brown? In the 1950’s it was a “local” college for Rhode Islanders. The new curriculum that made it hip came much later and does not attract that many Holden’s, I can tell you from experience. The flimsy people at Brown are the ultra rich who will never have to work a day in their lives and the people who get there by merit tend to be upbeat for that age bracket, at least back in my day. Sad to say, the former don’t have as much world weary jadedness as you see on TV; they just have more stuff and less restrictions, the bastards.
I tend to surprise people when I say I really liked “Catcher in the Rye” when I was a kid. I didn’t particularly identify with Holden, but I felt terrible for him. (Being who I was at the time, I probably also wanted to introduce him to Jesus. We won’t discuss it. =/) He was a fascinating character study for me at the time, and I uh…probably wanted to mother him a bit.
That said, I think an average middle-aged life as an ad exec would be completely appropriate.
(It’s probably significant that I read it on my own and wasn’t forced to discuss it with any professors or write any essays on it.)
Are there references in the book to when it takes place? I can’t recall. If not, maybe it’s a prequel.
When I was an undergrad, I was scolded for tipping the sacred cow by decreeing that I didn’t really care for Catcher In the Rye. i was doubly redressed for suggesting that most readers who aren’t English majors (which I was, alas) like to be entertained first and opened to new thoughts and ideas second. The longstanding argument I pitched during my stroll through higher education was that motif and symbolism and character angst are all for bupkus in any tale if the reader doesn’t have a compelling reason to keep turning pages.
I did not receive high marks for such thoughts.
BTW: just discovered you, John, through a copy of “Hate Mail” and I’m really enjoying your stuff. I’ve ordered Old Man’s War from B&N. Can’t get here soon enough.
It occurs to me that Holden could have become Paul the bearded guy on “Mad Men.” I don’t think he could be Pete Campbell, but some people might argue that.
Thanks for the reminder. I put the book of Scalzi’s essays in my amazon cart.
Enjoyed the essay, but also enjoyed the book as a teen. I must have been a really warped teenager, because it looked to me like Holden was having a pretty good time throughout the book, and all his angsting was part of the fun.
I went to boarding school, and hated it. Bookish, nerdy (also fat as hell and all lacking in any stripe of social skill).
I’m 35 now. Overweight again, more from love of glugging litres of Oat Soda than from foodely delights – grew out of my sweet tooth and such. And still, yes, occasionally a bit angsty.
I felt Angst from an early age, but I never accepted it as a defining part of myself. It’s something to rail against, to fight, to defy – not to embrace. It’s a thing that you don’t want aboard. Something that’s not required on the voyage.
Something frankly, for children. Possibly like beer.
John, I feel like you have a really sad view of life. I mean if a life is defined by teenage years….well thank God mine wasn’t. Surely Caulfield got over himself.
I also didn’t enjoy the book, but if I consider him as an adult, I’d like to assume that he went AWOL with the MIA storyline. And then became a spy. Maybe a Russian double agent.
Why make your version of his adulthood just as annoying as the original. Don Draper version is a continuation of the annoying.
I love the BC Woods version!
You know, I DID buy Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded. Just recently. So stop swearing at me.
As with many others above, I have to say you’ve nailed my feelings on the book. I was never a fan, and struggled to convey that at school to teachers and friends. It was probably my least favourite and most difficult book I had to read and write about.
“Holden is justly famous in the literary pantheon as being the first major teenage literary character to be allowed to note that the world was a tremendously screwed up place, and to have an intellectually appropriate response to that fact.”
What about Huckleberry Finn? He’s not quite as explicit about noting this, and he’s thankfully more active in his response (if not always consistent about it through the course of the book– but that’s also consistent with the way a lot of teens act). The whole “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” scene is implicitly what you describe, and it’s one of my favorite scenes in my middle-school assigned reading.
(I read _Catcher in the Rye_ too, but I liked Huck a lot better than Holden.)
Starman Jones. Yes.
My dislike of that particular book was aided by my English teacher that year. He seemed offended by the fact that I didn’t like it and graded me accordingly. Wasn’t the first time he did that either, he really didn’t like it when students disagreed with him.
I’m with Randi @5 and Ed @12… To Kill a Mockingbird is much better!
I never liked Catcher in the Rye either, and I was very angsty as a teen. I much preferred science fiction, then and now; although Holden’s world was plenty alien to me, growing up in Colorado in the 60’s and 70’s.
I agree with John @35 about Huck Finn.
“also available in Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, which you should buy, damn you).”
I really disliked the book and the Caulfield character for the same reasons. Perhaps I should thank my parents–coming up on 48 years of stable wedded bliss–for providing a loving and mostly stress-free home during my formative years.
I flipping hated Holden. I thought he was a whiny, spoilt, rich bastard who had no idea what the actual world was really like. The book gave me a headache. That year, someone very close to me died. I was 15 and my heart was broken. That might have had a lot to do with my lack of sympathy for someone I saw as a lazy layabout who did eff-all and whined about wanting to save kids without actually DOING anything about it. He thought he had real emotion, but he didn’t know what the heck that WAS, really. I think he believed emotion’s major component was thinking in caps lock.
I had a headache the entire way through the book. I did my reading-related assignments, and never picked that stupid book up again. I feel sorry for the kids subjected to it. I feel its literary value is next to worthless and its technical merit severely lacking. If I want to read a better-written story about a spoilt brat in that general time period, I’ll go pick up The Great Gatsby again.
THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!!! I thought I was the lone person in the world who *HATED* this book in HS! It was supposed to speak to me, it didn’t. I didn’t get it. Holden was a character I loathed, he just bitched and moaned! You are much more eloquent about this than I ever could be, but you and these other people who have commented have made me realize I am not alone in my dislike for this book!
Re: #43 and others
Did you all really feel that isolated in disliking this book? I’m pretty sure half my class disliked it and the other half were kind of blase about it (as they were about every book we read…because they did not read them..I’d eventually join this group). Although, I did only go to high school in this just-ended (or still-going, if you want to Grinch on me) decade.
John, did you sell this to any newspapers? Because I swear this was my first introduction to you–seeing this essay in the paper–and I looked up the Whatever in an effort to see if I could find a copy of this to point people to.
Man, I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to say pretty much all of these things to people buying Catcher when I was working at Borders. Occasionally I actually did say some of them (usually when trying to chat up a young lady, mostly unsuccessfully) and most people never really got what I was saying.
I just don’t understand it when people like Catcher. Even when they explain it to me. Holden is an ass, I don’t like him, and I never will. Then again, those same people usually cannot comprehend how I could dislike the book.
I don’t remember selling it to a newspaper, no. One might have quoted from it at one point or another.
Scalzi went to a boarding school? I suspected as much. Playing Dungeons and Dragons in a boarding school in the 80s must have been a defining moment in his writing life, much like it had been with Cory Doctorow. Away from home with nothing but book.
After a certain amount of time faking being deprogrammed, Holden goes to Brown and after graduation …
Because of you, I spent the last couple of days reading through all of Pohl’s blog posts, and now as a consequence of reading all that, this is what I think happened.
Holden never went back to school. As his family would have some famous names among their acquaintance, he would have, while still in his teens, managed to convince an acquaintance, an editor or a publisher perhaps with literary pretensions, to let him work in a magazine.
He would get bored out his mind, start writing angsty stories and get famous. He would achieve fame, but would never stop being the outsider. As a result he would eventually start getting into substance abuse, and eventually die before the age of 25.
I couldn’t figure out why he kept complaining so much when he had freedoms that I couldn’t begin to imagine. He was traveling by himself on a train, staying in New York City in a hotel room on his own, chatting up teenage call girls, etc.
When I was 20 years old I wanted to ride a bus from Wash DC to Baltimore to meet up with some college friends to see a Peter Gabriel concert, and my parents made it into a family crisis…
This is quite distressing to read. I don’t think I was raised by wolves or anything, but I was travelling the length of the country by train alone at the age of 13 and knocking about all sorts of unsettling countries on my own at 17. And your family regarded a bus trip as a crisis?
(Maybe they were just distressed that you wanted to see a Peter Gabriel concert. “Son, if you get on that coach, you’re dead to us.”)
“Holden Caulfield turned 50 this last week,”
No, he didn’t. The book in which he appeared was published fifty years before this column was written.
“right about now, he’s got a kid who is now the age Holden was in The Catcher in the Rye, and that kid is just driving him nuts.”
No. He was already a teenager when the book was published (in this imaginary world we’re positing), giving him a birth date of 1933 or 1934. By 2001, when you wrote this he would have been knocking on 70. It’s possible he’d have a teenage child when in his late 60s, but I’m interested to see how far you are going to stretch this pained analogy…
“Thank God she wasn’t born in the 20th century; they would have medicated her ass into catatonia, and then the Germans would have been able to roll right over the French forces at the start of WWII!”
I’m not really sure what this is trying to mean. My best guess is: Given one counterfactual (her existence and medication) then there would be counterfactual consequences, which actually aren’t counterfactual at all! Why not add some sarcasm to make your point really clear? Oh. You did.
“because in doing so he’s spared us inevitable Catcher sequel”
Or, perhaps, Salinger knew that a sequel was impossible, knew that he had written aboat an essentially teenage state of mind, and knew enogh to let it alone. Perhaps he knew all of the things you present as a (gasp!) revelation: that Holden would have had to have sold out or committed suicide, and knew that neither of those were books that needed writing. Maybe his refusal to write such a book suggests that it wasn’t ‘inevitable’, suggests that he (and anyone who, you know, reads books) could work this out without your blog presenting it as a piece of daring iconoclasm rather than common sense…
I appreciate that you don’t like ditherers and whingers in your art, and Holden Caulfield isn’t a particularly likeable or admirable human being. I’m not sure he’s meant to be. Perhaps the problem is your desire to see every character as a hero, to be unwilling to accept that a book can have value if it isn’t brim-full of manly, epic, aspirational virtues.
We probably shouldn’t watch Hamlet (indecisive whinger), read Of Mice And Men (he should just ditch Lenny and move on), listen to anything with distorted electric guitars in (oh, the angst of those angry instruments).
However, some of us think that (enjoy the book or not) there might be a place for a novel that describes the moment in a young person’s life when they realise they might have been sold a pup. For those who don’t there are a couple of hundred years’ worth of admirable young people doing exciting things that stretch them and save worlds.
There might have been a place for this article when you’re slaying the beasts of old literature, trying to make a name for yourself. Now, it just reads like badly thought-through snark.
And no, I don’t much care for Catcher In The Rye. I just think your dismissal of it is pretty feeble.
Nathaniel said, “We probably shouldn’t watch Hamlet…”
I thought the same thing yesterday as I was thinking about characters I didn’t like, but who nonetheless made an impression on me. Young Hamlet, the Prince of Woe Is Me, was not a character I liked at all. But we don’t always write our characters to be liked. Such is the human condition: some people are there to be used as examples of how Not to be.
I agree with Nathaniel’s point. Some people don’t find Holden likable (though I do); that’s really neither here nor there. Is it a well-written book, and does it have something important and interesting to say? Yes and yes. Beyond that, the rest is “well, I don’t happen to like spinach”.
— I note in passing that _Catcher_ was a mind-blowing runaway hit in the 1960s USSR.
It happened to come out during the “thaw” years of the early 1960s, when Khrushchev was relaxing internal controls on art and literature. (Solzhenitzyn’s book on the gulag came out the same year IMS.) Five years earlier or later, it would have been suppressed — and, in fact, once Brezhnev overthrew Khrushchev, it /was/ suppressed. (The Brezhnev years were not good ones for any work that was critical of hypocrisy and conformity.) But by that time, a couple of million people had read it.
Gorbachev was a little too old to be influenced by it, but Yegor Gaidar and a bunch of other Soviets who were young adults in the Sixties and Seventies have cited it as being hugely influential on them.
So, Salinger’s passing has provoked a huge outburst of attention and nostalgia in Russia and Eastern Europe. It was front page news across much of the region, and discussions in Russian-language blogs and forums are continuing as we speak.
“No, he didn’t. The book in which he appeared was published fifty years before this column was written.”
This is where I stopped reading your comment, Nathaniel, because when you start with a statement that brims with annoyingly smug nit-picky pedantry and yet also simultaneously misses the point entirely, there seems little doubt what the rest of the comment will be like, and life is too short for that.
Thus we learn, perhaps, the dangers of annoyingly smug nit-picky pedantry.
“Thus we learn…” being the beginning of a sentence in which you call someone else smug suggests that I might not be the only one with learning to do on that score…
Oh, and I wouldn’t worry, you can pick up the gist from the next couple of comments…
— Okay, just realized what’s been bugging me about this. It’s the whole “Holden is passive” thing.
Because he isn’t. He runs away from school and loses himself in the city. It’s not a great success, no, but you can’t say he’s just sitting around whining. He’s trying to change his circumstances, even if he fails. Yeah, he ends up back where he started, but so did Huck Finn and Sam Gamgee and a bunch of others, and nobody’s calling them passive.
He buys a prostitute, then changes his mind because he feels sorry for her. That’s actually a pretty tough call. Yeah, it’s a stupid romantic gesture — “look, just take the money, I just wanted to talk” — but it’s not the action of a whining loser.
He plans to run away altogether, until his little sister talks him out of it, because she’d be lonely without him. Should we take those plans seriously? It’s not obvious that we shouldn’t. Certainly he’s shown a willingness to take off for the horizon, and there’s nothing other than the little sister keeping him at home. I was left with the impression he was doing the harder thing by staying, even though he really wanted to be gone.
As for Starman Jones: geeez, Scalzi. I like the Heinlein juvies as much as anyone, but do you really want to make that comparison? Because Max was a dope, and only repeated and obvious authorial intervention kept him from ending up in whatever horrible place that society reserved for useless young people.
No, no. See, when I do it, it’s instructional. I mean, obviously.
“only repeated and obvious authorial intervention kept him from ending up in whatever horrible place that society reserved for useless young people.”
Heh. Even that didn’t save Holden, I’m afraid.
In any event, you may note that I make no claims that Starman Jones is a better literary character, that book a better piece of literature, than Holden and Catcher, respectively. Not and not. However, as a teenager I bounced hard off of Holden and got along with Jones. And just as I don’t hang around people I don’t like in real life, I do the same with literary characters. There are other depressed passives in literature I find more compelling.
“I was wondering, are there any *female* versions of Holden that are at the same literary level as the Salinger one? ” –Lisa
Esther Greenwood in _The Bell Jar_.
You really should have read the rest of Nathaniel’s post, John. He said what I would have said in far fewer words. I don’t think he’s the one “missing the point” here.
Consider it taken.
I shall no longer be smug or nit-picky. So much.
The Gray Area @ 52:
That, yes. Some of my favorite characters would in real-life be people I would have no interest in hanging out with.
To pick one at random, I appreciate the main character in David Gerrold’s Chtorr series, but he would annoy the shit out of me in real life. Likewise Lazarus Long — two thousand years worth of a very interesting life and he’s still an arrogant asshole.
However, some of us think that (enjoy the book or not) there might be a place for a novel that describes the moment in a young person’s life when they realise they might have been sold a pup.
I suspect there’s also a place for people who point out that Jesus, there’s a lot of books about that moment in a young person’s life when they realize that they might have been sold a pup, and that, boy, it’s kind of tiring for everyone else to hear about it again and again and again. Yes, we know. The world is conspiring to screw you over.
“Minister: The peasants are revolting!
King: Yes, yes, they are.”
(for some reason that quote occurred to me)
“I suspect there’s also a place for people who point out that Jesus, there’s a lot of books about that moment in a young person’s life when they realize that they might have been sold a pup, and that, boy, it’s kind of tiring for everyone else to hear about it again and again and again. Yes, we know. The world is conspiring to screw you over.”
At which point it makes just as much sense to say: Jesus, there are a lot of books about spaceships. Enough already, we get it!
Jesus, there are so many books about people falling in love, but don’t rub it in the rest of our faces all the time. Get over yourselves.
I fail to see why some people get so huffy when they read a book in which they aren’t invited to root for the protagonist. The book doesn’t agree with Caulfield’s whining, it makes it clear that it is whining. It does, however, sympathetically describe it and the reasoning behind it.
Reading a book is supposed to be an imaginative exercise. I feel sorry for those of you, who choose not to spend time with fictional characters you don’t want to spend time with in real life. You’re missing a lot.
There’s Scrooge, Macbeth, Portnoy, Yossarian, Woland, Dracula, Jude Fawley, Patrick Bateman, even Nero Wolfe. I wouldn’t want to personally spend any time with them. But there are interesting, entertaining, thoughtful stories about each of them.
They’re not meant to be your friends, they’re characters in books (or plays, or movies). It’s not an instruction manual, it’s a novel.
I’m sorry you’ll miss out on all of those stories, but I’m sure the pleasant, able, active, manly heroes you so desire (and which aren’t despite your implication, the minority of characters in literature) will fulfil your every imaginative desire.
At which point it makes just as much sense to say: Jesus, there are a lot of books about spaceships. Enough already, we get it!
Sure. And so and so on and so on. I’m not sure why you feel the need to jump into a thread and start getting huffy about someone saying the equivalent of the above. Wandering the Internet looking for things to get annoyed by is a mug’s game.
Bearpaw, I have to agree. I think Paul Atreides was my favorite. I’m not sure he’d have much to talk about with me, but given the chance I’d offer to have a spice beer with him and talk about the future.
John, you should go back and read Nathaniel’s comment anyway, smug or not.
“I never look back. It distracts from the now.”
I have not read the book since high school. I took it upon myself to do so then, as it was hidden in the school library’s back office (heaven forbid such incendiary litrachur be taught and give the kiddies ideas). Luckily the librarian was a cool woman who let me take the book home. I still have it, to this day, that exact copy. Guess I have one bummer of an overdue fee.
It had a huge impact on me, because, unlike some on here, I didn’t have a peachy keen adolescence where I was master of my domain and wholly secure within myself. Reading “Catcher” was an epiphany, helping me to realize I wasn’t the only one. It helped me immensely with feelings it was not safe to express. It caused me to grow up in my reading.
It was around that time I left Doc Savage and Tarzan (never read Heinlein) behind. Not that I don’t occasionally enjoy stories with straight-ahead heroes, but the tales that resonate strongest with me are those where the protagonist (not every lead character is a “hero”) has aspects I don’t understand or agree with, along with those I do.
Having somehow managed to avoid this novel I don’t have a lot to say, except to observe that no one is engaging with comment #18.
It had a huge impact on me, because, unlike some on here, I didn’t have a peachy keen adolescence where I was master of my domain and wholly secure within myself
Possibly you shouldn’t assume what other people’s adolescences were like.
Having somehow managed to avoid this novel I don’t have a lot to say, except to observe that no one is engaging with comment #18.
I think I’d cave to more sales pitches if they ended in “which you should buy, damn you!”
There was probably a time when, had I read this book, I would have been sucked in by it. I was a moody little snot of a high-schooler. Then I more or less overdosed on angst and drama, and I have a nearly zero tolerance policy for it today, unless it’s in response to a real, actual problem.
That said, I can think of books with moody main characters that I really liked. Steppenwolfe was extremely entertaining, but near the end our hero (an angsty old man. That’s right, not a teenager!) is getting shit done (shooting the drivers of cars that pass-by with a rifle. Seriously, read this book.)
From the description, Holden sounds like someone who, today, you’d find moping in the corner of a smoke-filled goth club, with his mascara running.
“sucked in by it”?
It’s a story, not a self-help guide.
But, again, your comments having not read the book and not intending to, summarised in your incomplete understanding of even the comment thread are as helpful as can be expected.
Do we really have to go through this again?
It’s possible to read, enjoy, understand, and be enlightened by stories about characters who are not the same as you, or whom, in real life (can we stop saying this? They do not, will not exist in real life. They are characters. In books. You would not ever be friends with them because you cannot. Unless you are insane) you would have little time for.
People other than murderers read stories about murderers all the time. And like them.
David: “I’m not sure why you feel the need to jump into a thread and start getting huffy about someone saying the equivalent of the above.”
Nice. Turning ‘huffy’ back on me. I see what you did there.
I subscribe to the RSS feed of this blog. When someone writes a deliberately contrarian piece, I assume they are itching for someone to disagree with them. In this case, I disagree, and I’ve said why (although John will never know why…).
I also thought the piece was poorly-written, and made very little sense. This is not the quality of bloggery I have come to expect from John, but then I have not been subscribing since 2001. What he writes now is a lot better than what is at the top of this page.
Lots of the time I like what he says, and the way he says it. This time, I liked neither, and (mercy!) used the Comments section to, you know, comment…
This time, I liked neither, and (mercy!) used the Comments section to, you know, comment…
And comment, and comment, and comment.
Now, now, David. People may comment as they will, as long as they keep from poking each other in the eye.
I engaged with it at comment #21.
# Nathaniel Tapley @73
What’s your problem? “sucked in by” is not a bad thing. The books I get sucked in by are the books that I love.
I haven’t read the damn book. There are lots of books that I haven’t read that I have a pretty good idea that I wouldn’t like. Based on reccomendations or warning of friends, my opinion tastes of people I know who either love or hate it, etc…
My point was, the window in my life when something as moody as this sounds would have been appealing is closed. Ok, that’s a fairly awkward sentence, but you get the idea.
With respect to wanting a character to be likable. Yes, it matters. It doesn’t mean they have to be a good person. Readers love a good scoundrel. I’m certain you could write a story from the point of view of Jack the Ripper where you end up rooting for him.
Ben, I apologise.
‘Sucked in by’ sounded like you thought that this book was an recruiting tool for nihilistic teenagers. I misread it as that. Sorry.
For some context on the types of books that I read in my teens that I go back to now and wonder if I’m reading the same book. The following:
1. The sword of truth series (self righteous wind-baggery and lots of sex? Hell yes!)
2. The wayfarer redemption series (see above)
3. The Wheel of Time series (lots of sex plus teen angst!)
4. The Black Jewel Trilogy (Don’t judge me!)
From the sound of it, I could see this book fitting into a list like this, that is, if I had ever been inclined to read a book that didn’t have dragons or glowing swords, or what have you in it.
Ah, to be 13 again…
I should add, I’m not trying to crap on any of those series. As I’ve said, when I was younger, those were the top of my list.
It’s more that my own tastes have changed. A friend lent me a coppy of The Black Company, and I’ve never looked back.
But still with the passive.
Apropos of #18: one thing that’s not being discussed is that something’s /wrong/ with Holden.
The book very deliberately leaves this vague. But we know his older brother, who he loved and respected, died a little while ago. His parents are absent and don’t seem to care what happens to him. The collapse in his grades seems to be a recent thing, but we’re never told what — other than his brother’s death — might be behind it.
Also, Holden’s narrative style, with its constant jumps in tone and topic, suggests that something’s not quite right. At least one reviewer has suggested that Salinger was writing Holden to have ADD. (I’m not sure that diagnosis even existed in 1961, but the symptoms have been recognized since at least Elizabethan times. So maybe.)
And at the end of the book, it’s implied (though not quite stated!) that Holden is telling the story from some sort of rest home or institution. He’s obviously not crazy, but was he troubled enough to be put under observation for a while? Did the absent parents put him there? Deliberately left vague. But, again, something not right there.
So the whole “Holden Caulfield is an emo angsty whiner” thing is a bit overstated. The kid has some no-kidding problems: a dead brother, parents who seem completely uninterested in him, few friends and a complete absence of adult sympathy or support.
Now, you can argue that these problems aren’t big enough for the amount of emoting that Holden does. But I’d turn around and say that’s exactly the point. Real problems plus no sense of proportion — that’s adolescence.
The other thing that’s getting missed is that /Holden is a sweet kid/. For all the cursing and sulking, at heart he’s an idealist, sans peur et sans reproche. What’s his fantasy? Power? Sex? Revenge on a world that has spurned him?
No — it’s to be the Catcher in the Rye, watching out for the little kids who are playing, and keeping them from harm.
— Obviously I disagree sharply with John’s opinion of Holden. But I do think the comparison with Heinlein’s juveniles is interesting. Because Holden Caulfield is in some ways very much like a Heinlein juvenile protagonist. He’s bright, honest, loyal, a little naive, idealistic, and either undersexed or somewhat repressed.
I’d say the closest comparandum to Holden is not Starman Jones, but Kip from _Have Spacesuit, Will Travel_. Kip tells his story in the first person; he’s a bit of a loner; his main emotional attachment is to a young girl who is a little-sister figure. Kip seems happier and better adjusted than Holden, but OTOH he’s got loving parents and a stable family. And like Holden, Kip /doesn’t actually accomplish much of anything/. He rebuilds the spacesuit, but after that he’s pretty much along for the ride. His escape attempt is futile, and the Wormfaces are defeated (and the Earth saved) without him. And at the end of the book, like Holden, he’s pretty much back where he started.
Doug M. @80: Sorry, you forgot to state your opinion in the form of an affirmation of the moral and aesthetic superiority of SF fans.
I enjoyed the book, but I didn’t have strong feelings either way about Holden Caulfield. It was well written and the story was interesting, but what I liked about it was the humor. I mean the guy wanders around NYC, hires a call girl then gets almost beaten up for *not* sleeping with her.
The whole book just struck me as funny as here is this kid wandering around pretending to be an adult, but not really knowing how to even do that. That’s what interested me more than the attitude toward authority, or the view of adults as being “phoney” or anything else. It has both humor and irony, which is why I felt it was more like Catch-22 then “Rebel without a cause” type teen exploitation.
That being said, I really don’t understand why Nathaniel thinks making a statement like “It’s possible to read, enjoy, understand, and be enlightened by stories about characters who are not the same as you…” on a comment board full of Sci-Fi/Fantasy fans is any way insightful.
I mean hello? We like space aliens, wizards, monsters, characters from the past/future/alternate realities, but we’re too “lose minded to understand a teenage boy lost in NY? If this isn’t an example of blatant literary snobbery, then I don’t know what would qualify.
Oh yeah, and TL;DR.
I didn’t like Holden because he’s like over half of the people I know. Maybe that was the point? I don’t know.
MyName: Yes, when you cut off the second half of a sentence it does sound like something that wasn’t worth saying. Because it wasn’t what I said.
The thrust of the post, and some of the arguments below is that people don’t like Catcher In The Rye because they don’t like Holden Caulfield. That he wasn’t an admirable, active, attractive hero, and thus the book wasn’t worth their time. A lot of people have phrased it in terms of whether or not they were ‘like’ HC as teenagers.
My point, and the point of that sentence, was that it doesn’t matter whether you are like or do like the hero. That has nothing to do with whether or not a book is worth reading.
My comment wasn’t literary snobbery. It was just plain snobbery with reference to a comment I thought was stupid. And I apologised for having misread it.
I do, however, resent your assumptions that because I enjoy reading things other than SF / fantasy, I don’t qualify as a fan, or even as ‘we’.
(And do I really have to prove my genre fiction credentials? I’m a member of the British Fantasy Society; I subscribe to both Interzone and Black Static; I run a monthly horror podcast; I’ll be performing at the World Horror Convention in March, and am hoping to do the same at FantasyCon in September; the last book I ordered from Amazon was by Ray Bradbury; I’m waiting for George R. R. Martin to get writing just like everybody else…)
Yes, I read literary fiction. Yes, I read genre fiction. I believe it’s possible to love both.
I’m having trouble with the idea that staying miserable and never making peace with his impotent rage is “winning,” and moving on and being happy would be “losing.”
I think that by the standards of the book and most people who like it (which, as I said, I also really like), then moving on and being happy would be “losing”. There’s this feeling running through it that the only way to make live in an intolerable world is to refuse to tolerate it, that settling down and making peace with its quirks and idiosyncracies would be giving up.
I don’t believe that myself. But what I was more saying it in response to John’s comment that “Big Holden fans will be unhappy with this life of hypocritical mediocrity I’ve provided for their anti-hero.”
In that I don’t think being an unhappy, high-functioning alcoholic would be hypocritical for him or at all out of keeping with his character, as set up by the book, at all. What “Big Holden fans” would probably most dislike is what actually would have happened to someone of his age and social class. He’d have grown up, settled down, done his best, cherished his successes, forgiven himself his failures, weathered the occassional moments of self-doubt, and been mostly happy.
Your point is completely wrong though. You may be able to get away with saying that it didn’t matter *to you* whether you like the main character, but since this is a first person novel, and he’s the voice of the book, it is valid to point out that if you didn’t like the main character (or didn’t identify with him) then you may not like the book at all.
Moreover, you’ve been engaging in literary snobbery from your first post by implying that people who didn’t like the Caulfeld the character therefore will only like books with an “admirable, active, attractive hero” as the main character. There are plenty of good books, especially in the sci-fi and fantasy genres, without such a lead. The bottom line is that it’s possible to like Conan the Barbarian, and Arthur Dent, and characters out of the Ring World cycle, and Hamlet, but still dislike Holden Caulfeld and therefore “Catcher in the Rye”. It all comes down to your tolerance for snotty teenagers who like to rail against “phony” adults while pretending to be more grownup than they really are.
And if you have “genre credentials” then there’s really no excuse for such snobbery. Your assumption that someone who dislikes a character for being passive automatically means the person can only like books with “heroic” leads is faulty. It’s the sort of mistake that is made by people who are unfamiliar with genre books and view sci-fi as “space opera” with two dimensional characters instead of being an area that can produce great literature.
Did you read the post at the top of the page?
I did not suggest the only reason for not liking HC was preferring a different kind of hero. I was responding to an article of John’s which said that was his reason.
“If you were going to give me a teenage hero, give me Heinlein’s Starman Jones: He traveled the galaxy and memorized entire books of log tables and became Captain of a starship (for procedural reasons, granted). All Holden did was bitch, bitch, bitch. Put Holden at the controls of a starship and he’d implode from stress. Not my hero, thanks.”
“To go back to Heinlein and his juvy novels, his teenage characters are not very big on internal lives, but they’re also the sort who go out, do things, fail, do things again, and eventually get it right. Holden merely wishes, ultimately a man of inaction. He’s a failure — a particularly attractive failure if you’re of a certain age and disposition, admittedly, but a failure nonetheless.”
See? It’s not ‘my assumption’. It’s what was actually said.
Is it unfair to characterise this argument as faintly macho nonsense? Maybe, but that was what I was doing. That’s not snobbery, it’s answering exactly the point made.
You brought some weird chip on your shoulder into the discussion by deciding that SF itself was under attack from literary snobs. Rather than what was actually happening, which was people disagreeing with an assessment of one novel using the terms in which it was criticised in the first place.
Oh, but my argument, that maybe there are rooms for all kinds of characters in literature, and we don’t have to find the central characters of novels appealing to find them interesting is the kind of thing you’d expect someone like the sort of person you assumed I was to say. So I’m the one who’s a snob.
“but still dislike Holden Caulfeld and therefore “Catcher in the Rye”. ”
The problem I see is with that “therefore” right there.
Disclaimer: I’ve never read Catcher, and frequent comments I’ve heard that you need to read it at a certain point in your life & so I’m too late has kept my copy sitting on the shelf for ages, but I’ve read tons of comments all over my usual web haunts (NOT just within fandom) to the effect of “I hated the book because I hated Holden” and somehow that rubs me the wrong way. Maybe because so many things I like (usually in the “nasty comedy” category) have flopped or been cancelled and the lack of “likability” on the part of the characters cited for the failure, I’m a bit sensitive to claims of character unlikability as criticism of any kind of fiction.
Funny note” when I was a depressed, sulking teen, my identification characters where Yossarian and the Reggie Perrin of the original books, so I felt more for burned-out middle-aged types than angry manchildren.
also available in Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, which you should buy, damn you
What, I can’t just keep reading my copy from the Hugo Nominees packet? (Actually, I can’t- my eyes keep objecting)
Nathaniel: Are you suggesting that the audience is *not* supposed to like or identify with Holden? Because that’s pretty different from any other interaction with the book that I’ve encountered, like, dislike, or abstain.
— Back in 1968 or so, Alexei Panshin pointed out that most male Heinlein characters fell into three broad categories: (1) the naive young male, (2) the somewhat older male who understands how the world works but not why, and (3) the Wise Old Guy who has almost everything figured out.
(For some reason, this fairly straightforward observation has, over the years, driven some Heinlein defenders into a frothing rage. Go figure.)
Panshin also pointed out that many Heinlein books are straightforward coming-of-age stories, built around the transformation of a young male from type (1) to type (2). (However, there is no Heinlein book that deals with the subsequent transformation from type (2) to type (3). Heinlein’s Wise Old Guys are never shown developing; they’re just part of the landscape.)
Anyway. I submit that Holden, if dropped into a Heinleinverse, would do just fine. The problem is not with him. As noted, he’s intelligent, idealistic, and loyal.
The problem is that he’s not in a Heinlein world. He’s in 20th century New York city. Turn it around: drop one of Heinlein’s kid protagonists into Holden’s situation. Do they do better? Really?
As about a million English teachers have pointed out, the problem with Hamlet isn’t only that he’s Hamlet. It’s also that he’s stuck in the play, _Hamlet_. Switch him into Othello, and vice versa, and what happens? Othello, blunt and forthright, kills Claudius in Act Two — short play, happy ending. Hamlet, intelligent and perceptive, hesitates to turn against Desdemona and eventually figures out what Iago is up to somewhere around the beginning of Act Four. He has little difficulty outwitting and trapping Iago, and then settles down with Desdemona to rule Cyprus and raise a passel of kids, with the occasional evening off for melancholy brooding.
So, I don’t think the fault here is poor Holden’s.
Given the prep school background, I always figured he went to work for the CIA. Maybe he can be the villain in the next Bourne movie, since that series finally takes the boy-who-solves-mysteries genre and the boy-who-whines genre and melds them together.
I’m glad to hear that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t understand what Holden Caulfield was carping about.
He seemed to be complaining about the nature of reality.
I’ve always thought that most humans throughout history have had very nasty, brutish and short lives — apologies to Hobbes — by our contemporary standards.
Holden Caulfield was young, healthy and with a good family in the richest, freest (only 2 es, I looked it up) country in human history. It was a period of extraordinary development and opportunity.
I understand that even rich, health people in good societies can have real problems. (I’ve been one of those people.) But they should remember that they are their problems.
Anyway, thanks for the comments from all of my fellow non-fans of Holden Caulfield.
Here’s an odd factoid: Catcher in the Rye was apparently a big influence on Bill Gates: “One of my favorite books from childhood is The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. I have read it so many times that I can quote large portions of it from memory.”
I haven’t a clue what this means.
Salinger was a phony.
Okay, I had to get that off my chest first.
I avoided reading ‘Catcher’ when I was a teenager back in the 70s. I finally got around to reading it, oddly enough, after seeing “Conspiracy Theory”, the Mel Gibson movie in which the main character is a brainwashed assassin who is driven to acquire copies of “Catcher in the Rye”.
I was disappointed. I have read many kinds of novels, books that uplift, books that inform, books that remind one of the tragedies of human existence. Fun books, poignant books, seductive books, instructive books. ‘Catcher’ was just plain boring. Nothing I read in this thread suggests I missed something.
Like JS, I loved Heinlein. Apart from creating enduring, lovable characters, Heinlein was a storyteller. Things happened to — and because of — his characters. What happened to Holden? Nothin’. Yeah, trip into the city. Big deal. Hookers, restaurant, hotel. I wouldn’t even put that in a text message, much less make a novel out of it. Sure, like many, I never liked Holden, and I understand why some have pointed out that liking the main character is not the same as liking the novel. I loved “Pere Goriot” without caring much for Eugene de Rastignac. But at least things happened to Eugene. He went places, met interesting people, and by the end had made some progress. Caulfield, not so much.
I think Mr. Scalzi has broached an important point here, re Salinger’s inability to continue where he left off re Holden Caulfield. That is to say, having displayed no upward arc to the character in Catcher, Salinger would either have been forced into inventing a Cathartic Event (which would have ruined Caulfield for those who loved him) or been obliged to make somehow interesting Caulfield’s sad descent into middle age (which, even if successful, would also have turned off Catcher fans).
But this merely touches upon a larger truth about Salinger. And because another commenter has opined that ‘Salinger did what he wanted with his life, fans be damned’, I want to go there.
Salinger did NOT, in fact, ‘do what he wanted with his life’. He was, in fact very much a prisoner of his own success. Specifically, he was a victim of the KIND of success he enjoyed.
Salinger was one of those ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ type of writers, who winds up such a darling of certain literary elites that he is placed in a very precarious position. A Stephen King, by contrast, is a much freer writer. All he needs to do is please his audience, and there is nothing a critic can do to damage that relationship. Therefore King could care less about his critics. The critics, knowing this, could care less about King.
But Salinger’s mystique was extremely precarious, and he knew it. Those to whom literature is, like everything else in their lives, an exercise in precious one-upsmanship, gushed endlessly over Salinger. His death provided the pretentious with an excuse to gush sensitively, endlessly, and very publicly over ‘what might have been’.
For a critic wishing to maintain to maintain a lofty position as gatekeeper of the public tastes (not every critic has this vainglorious goal, we’re talking about the elite effete here), he must keep moving the goalposts, just as The Emperor’s advisers, whose careers rode on a nonexistent garment, were forced to do.
For a writer whose career depends on the delicate illusions (and allusions) of literary pretense, there are three choices:
1) TOUGH OUT THE BAD TIMES
That was Hemingway’s choice, until he just couldn’t tough it out anymore.
2) END IT ALL BEFORE THE HOUSE OF CARDS FALLS
The critics could barely make it through David Foster Wallace’s dense, rambling prose. They were so intimidated, they declared his raiment the most splendid thing they had ever seen. The sensitive Wallace, though, knew the critics (and those who depended wholly on their judgement) were fickle. His was a sad story, but hardly unprecedented.
Salinger’s solution was to leave ’em wanting more. But this was hardly a ‘freeing’ choice. In fact, he remained a prisoner of the critics who ‘made’ him for most of his life. Not a life I’d envy.
Now, by contrast, Mr. Scalzi’s solution – reminding commenters frequently, and in large type, to BUY HIS DAMN BOOK, I find emotionally healthy and refreshingly honest. His is a healthy appetite, and he knows damn well which side of the toast his butter’s on.
Holden grew up and became President of the US. Enough said.
I really, really don’t think there’s any evidence that DFW’s suicide was a result of any sort of worries about his literary reputation.
He’d been clinically depressed for twenty plus years and took one antidepressant to control it. Then he switched antidepressants, which can sometimes result in worsening depression.
I thought the point of the book was the wake-up call that the teacher guy gave Holden near the end, I’m talking about the guy who put his hand on Holden’s forehead which sort of freaked him out…
That guy pretty much told Holden that he’s not nearly as unique as he thinks he is, and that he’s in free fall and needs to recognize that. I haven’t read the book since being a teenager, but I do remember I thought that guy was basically Salinger talking to Holden, perhaps Salinger talking to himself as a teenage, or what he wish someone had told himself as a teenager.
And why not just suppose that Holden becomes an author, say of kids books? Seems in character and pretty close to what the … uh .. author himself did.
I haven’t a clue what this means.
Well, it gives “blue screen of death” a whole new layer of meaning, for one thing …
There’s no such thing as being a prisoner of success. Being in a self-imposed prison is complete and utter BS. It’s an excuse, created by those posturing to be ‘Literary Elites’. Salinger COULD have decided to get over himself and his fame, just as many others have and live a full and creative life. He chose to hide away and not take any risks with his writing or his personal life. Catcher was a lousy book and completely overrated. IMAO.
Speaking of Heinlein …
The RAH novel that most reminds me of Catcher in the Rye is Double Star. The viewpoint character spends considerable time being buffeted by events and whining about how unfair his situation is, but toward the end of the book reality smacks him upside the head and he realizes that there is something he can do about the world being a crappy place, and he turns his life around and does it.
To me, what Catcher in the Rye needed was a scene in which Holden realized that yes, there was nothing he could do to save his brother … but that there were millions of equally worthy people out there in the world he could save, and that he could give his life some meaning by doing something about it. If he wanted to save people — especially innocent kids — he could have become a physician or a shrink or a social worker or a cop or even *shudder* a defense attorney. He could have, and should have, done something.
It’s been claimed that the difference between a story and a novel is that in a story something happens and in a novel people change. By that criterion, Catcher in the Rye is just an overly long short story. A cautionary tale, perhaps: Kids! Don’t let this happen to you!
Can anyone recommend a Heinlein book to start with? Love reading about new frontiers, wish space was more accessible currently as a frontier for us – America needs a frontier!
I have a slightly different take on this whole issue. I, like the vast majority of the readers of this site, grew up loving sci-fi and fantasy, reading it nearly non-stop throughout school and college (I quit in the late ninety, with the only sci-fi I’ve read in the past 5 years being Scalzi’s). In fact, the first book I ever read that was not assigned to me was Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Gallieo!
Thus, it is amusing to me that even though I seem to have the same tastes as the other contributors here, I have a different perspective on Catcher in the Rye. It was the first (and perhaps only) book I was assigned to read in school that was actually entertaining! I mean, did you ever have to read The Scarlet Letter? At least Catcher in the Rye was interesting and seemed real, as opposed to all the pablum that was the typical read in public school.
I liked it so much that my three children are named Holden, Phoebe and Zoe (I wanted Zoe to be twins, so I could get Fanny in as well).
The book and protagonist may not be everybody’s taste, but it is dramatically better than nearly everything else that is assigned in the public school system, even to this day. The story and characters stick with you and just the fact that you imagine what would be happening to the character as he ages says something to me: that the character seems real.
“He’d been clinically depressed for twenty plus years and took one antidepressant to control it. Then he switched antidepressants, which can sometimes result in worsening depression.”
Yes, and I know the suicide was blamed on the drugs and/or the depression. However, people prone to depression often place themselves in situations where their depression may be worsened. Or, if you like, it’s easy to push someone already prone to depression over the edge.
But if you don’t care for that example, it would not be terribly difficult to find a dozen others.
“Salinger COULD have decided to get over himself and his fame”
Of course he could have. Instead, he CHOSE TO LIVE as a prisoner of his own success. Perhaps that is a better (and more palatable to you) expression of the idea. ‘Hoist by his own petard’ is threadbare but servicable, too, though I have to keep looking up ‘petard’. (It’s a bomb.)
Mr. Dooley says:
What??? You twentieth Century wimps “had to read” Catcher at a tender age ???—and when you didn’t manage to regurgitate your teachers’ point of view in discussions and papers you didn’t get an “A”???
And it warped your dear little psyches???
Oh, poor babies (male, that is)!!!
We nineteenth century intellectuals in training carried our well worn copies of The Sorrows of Young Werther on our personal pilgrimage to Weimar hoping against hope that we’d never receive the pistols we were forced to beg for.
Check out Wikepedia’s hilarious account of Goethe’s “adolescent male angst” for a genuine, thrilling account of life amongst the privileged a century before Holden wandered into the syllabus.
As a seventy five year old female, I suspect that it is a correct assumption in our culture that that whining “Drip,” Holden, represents the “Patrician Everyman” of the twentieth century.
I also maintain (from the point of view of the Plebs) that it is the Huckelbury Finns and Tom Sawyers and their friends, Jim and Becky, who peopled and survived the twentieth century with whom we are most content to spend what is left of our time in this best of all possible worlds.
#98 and #103: you guys are assuming your conclusions. No offense, but you don’t seem to know much about Salinger.
Basically, he got a taste of fame — and gagged, spat, and said, “No, thanks”. That’s a very rare reaction, but it’s not unheard of; without reaching for Google, I can think of half a dozen other creative people who’ve gone that way.
A recent example: Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes. Lives quietly at home, almost never gives interviews or makes public appearances, has refused to allow Calvin and Hobbes merchandise, shows no intention of every publishing anything ever again. Pretty much a silent recluse for fifteen years now.
Is Watterson a “prisoner of his own success”? Or just a guy who prefers a quiet life, and now has enough money to make that stick? (And how exactly would you tell the difference?)
“effete elites” — sheesh. There’s no snob like a backwards snob, I swear.
A psychologist of my acquaintance has an interesting theory about the link between antidepressants and suicide. Severley depressed people are often rendered almost completely inactive because of their depression – they don’t have enough get up and go, if you will, to actually carry out the impulse. So an antidepressant may not actually cure the depression, but may reduce it to the degree that the person now does have the energy to kill themselves.
Seriously? Better than To Kill a Mockingbird or anything that Shakespeare ever wrote? I’ll grant you that a lot of school teachery sucks the life out of even great works (it took me years to get over what my high school English teacher did to Lord of the Flies), but c’mon. I don’t think that most people who name their children after an author’s characters do so not because they love the book, but because it was not as crummy as all their other high-school assignments.
The ‘hate Holden’ bandwagon here is actually a pretty powerful tribute to Salinger’s writing. As a commenter over at Ezra Klein put it:
“CITR’s great accomplishment is that it does capture a character’s voice so well that we almost forget it was a work of fiction rather than some kind of biography. Indeed people discuss the book almost entirely as a reaction to Holden, rather than any other way.”
— And it’s true.
Si monumentum requirem, circumspice.
“The ‘hate Holden’ bandwagon here is actually a pretty powerful tribute to Salinger’s writing.”
I’d note (again) I never said it wasn’t a fine book. Just not for me.
Well then, here’s a technical question.
Do you ever read a book, not like it much, but still think “wow, the author did a great job with X” — and then try to break it down and figure out just how X was done?
— I have friends who are creative people, and they tell me they regularly try to deconstruct other folk’s creative works to figure out how they tick. But at least one tells me he can’t do it with stuff he doesn’t like because, well, he doesn’t like it. Like, Emeril may be a great cook, but even he can’t make me eat shrimp, type of thing.
So I’m wondering how that works for you. Pure curiosity.
“For a writer whose career depends on the delicate illusions (and allusions) of literary pretence”
So nothing drove the writers you mention but “pretence?” There’s something very wrong there.
Doug M. @109:
“There’s no snob like a backwards snob, I swear.”
Seconded, with a slow-build standing ovation.
“Do you ever read a book, not like it much, but still think ‘wow, the author did a great job with X’ — and then try to break it down and figure out just how X was done?”
Heh. You’re asking me if I’ve engaged in deconstructionism?
Short answer: Sure, although in point of fact as a writer myself I look at the mechanics of everything I read and how the author is doing what he or she is doing. It’s an occupation hazard.
More like, did deconstruction ever drive you to read (or reread) something you didn’t otherwise much like.
Not really, but then I don’t reread a lot of stuff I like, either.
Okay. Well, thank you.
Last thought on Holden, then, from another one of Ezra Klein’s people:
“The Catcher in the Rye is wasted on anyone younger than forty. Most kids, even good readers, don’t realize that they are dealing with a thoroughly unreliable narrator. Really, it shouldn’t be on high school reading lists. I had the same reaction as yours when I read it as a young person decades ago. I found Holden irritating.
“I picked it up again in my late forties… and read a completely different book. The clues are all there on the first couple of pages but young readers aren’t sophisticated enough to pick them up. It’s not about simple teenage angst, or phoniness; it’s about despair. And Holden Caulfield, who is experiencing the despair, along with his whole family, doesn’t know what’s happening. That is what makes him an unreliable narrator. The second time around I wanted to hug him. He really is one of the most amazing, lovable characters in fiction, but I reckon you have to be middle aged and a parent to see it. Come back to it in a decade or so, Ezra. It’s an extraordinary book.”
I haven’t reread it in over a decade; this comment makes me want to give it another look. YMMV.
If you’re going to speculate about Holden’s future after Catcher in the Rye, don’t forget the soon to explode civil rights movement, followed by the anti Vietnam war movement, followed by the string of assassinations. Given his idealism and desire to “save little kids”, Holden could easily have ended up over his head in any or all of these social movements. His ultimate destination could have been anything politically radical — for example, on the run from the law as a antiwar weatherman type, a deeply drugged dropout-type on a commune, or, if he stayed a loner, an assassin stalking the politician or celebrity of his choice. Granted, he would have been on the old side (early to middle thirties) but would have been exposed to a social climate that would speak to his inmost attitudes, so who knows?. In short, a boring middle age seems possible only if he makes it past the 1960’s and ’70’s into middle age … By the way, Julia (#42) who thought of Catcher in the Rye as being the same type of thing as the Great Gatsby should realize that the main character in the Great Gatsby is old enough to be Holden’s father.
I related a great deal to Catcher in my teen years. I was at least as alienated as Holden, probably more so.
I remember discussing this in my high school literature class. A cheerleader noted her disapproval “I just think he was a loser”.
My teacher didn’t seem to like it either- she spent much less time on it than other works. I don’t think it fit her agenda much- she much preferred Faulkner.
While I agree that Holden was a rather annoying character I think that the inner life of most teens would annoy most adults and certainly annoy teens who ignored theirs.
Scalzi, you magnificent genius. You’ve articulated why I hated Catcher, as well as why I’ve hated every book of note which our educators crammed down our throats.
And why they hate Heinlein and those like him. If you’re a passive nothing like Holden, you’ll go along with whatever ideas and solutions they posit for you. You’ll go along with their hoax and chains.
The trouble with thinking protagonists who are (wo)men of action is that they inspire readers to take action. And students who take action are much more scary and less compliant.
This brings to mind a flaw in Zoe’s Tale. Zoe Boutin Perry has alien protectors who’ll ultimately backstop her. Or Harry Potter has his magic that his readers lack. Or Percy Jackson has Poseidon who’s got his back. Heinlein’s Kip Johnson had just his wits, ambition and willingness to work. We need to write about kids like that.
“So nothing drove the writers you mention but “pretence?” There’s something very wrong there.”
Never. Said. That. That was entirely your fabrication. And I agree, there’s something very wrong there.
What I actually SAID was that the pretense of certain influential readers fuels the CAREERS of a select literary glitterati who are favored with the Emperor’s Garment treatment at any given time. This is what puts coin in their pockets.
“What drives them” (or anyone) to write is another question altogether – one I have not touched upon. But in Salinger’s case, the fear of falling off his lofty perch (a perch that he did not easily attain, by the way) drove him NOT to write, for many decades. Other writers are driven to alcoholism or suicide by these same forces.
There’s a lot to be said, therefore, in bypassing the pitfalls of literary knighthood, and instead running a blog where you directly
extortencourage readers to buy your damn books.
“Thank God she wasn’t born in the 20th century; they would have medicated her ass into catatonia…”
The same could be said for all the characters in Salinger. They’d all be on prescription psychotropic drugs today. When Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey came out in 1951 and 1960 respectively, psychiatrists were still using psychoanalysis. It was not yet accepted that schizophrenia and manic depression (now called bipolar disorder) were caused by brain chemical imbalances. That change, and the widespread use of drugs like Prozac and Xanax, didn’t come until the 1970s.
“There’s Scrooge, Macbeth, Portnoy, Yossarian, Woland, Dracula, Jude Fawley, Patrick Bateman, even Nero Wolfe. I wouldn’t want to personally spend any time with them. But there are interesting, entertaining, thoughtful stories about each of them.”
But there aren’t any about Holden Caulfield. That’s the difference.
“What I actually SAID was that the pretense of certain influential readers fuels the CAREERS of a select literary glitterati who are favored with the Emperor’s Garment treatment at any given time.”
Well, I still call that a load of balls, and reads like paranoid silliness inspired by some kind of genre-ghetto-resentment issues.
I love SF all to bits, and I roll my eyes and snort at the latest bit of ignorance on display in the “As Others See Us” section of Ansible every month, but I’ve come to feel that all the insecure short-guy-syndrome railing against the Great Literary-Academic Conspiracy to Keep Us Down does the field more harm than any machinations by them snooty types with their high-falutin’ ways and their tireless efforts to cheat the genre of its legitimacy.
And before you accuse me of putting words in your mouth again (also, note the “reads like”) which telepathic scan of Salinger’s brain is “the fear of falling off his lofty perch …drove him NOT to write” based on? A number of other possibilities have been raised here, like a simple aversion to fame & celebrity, but you seem pretty certain that that’s The Answer.
Let’s play nice, folks.
“Well, I still call that a load of balls, and reads like paranoid silliness inspired by some kind of genre-ghetto-resentment issues.”
I see. So no matter how badly you misinterpret my words, I’m still wrong and you’re always right. And just in case you’re not making your point, here comes the name-calling. Always nice to have a backup.
That’s fine. Now that I understand the rules, I hope you’ll understand if I limit my conversations around here to people who are actually talking TO me, rather than working out some sort of personal problem in a chat area. Thanks.
Okay. Clever enough, for a guy who admits he “didn’t get it.” It appears he still doesn’t. As an English teacher who never himself assigned Catcher in the Rye, I nevertheless have to offer a brief defense. One doesn’t have to be mired in teen angst to appreciate (as I did when I read it in my teens) a large truth: people, especially small and … See Morerelatively innocent people, are hurting, they fall off cliffs with no one to catch them. Anyone with half an “internal life” can appreciate the pain of knowing this and knowing simultaneously, that few people give a crap. Given your youth, very few people take you or whatever insights or efforts you might suggest seriously. They’ve “caved,” moved on, “grown up” into apathy or cynicism or remarkably small ambitions; they patronize you, counting the days until you, too, “cave.” Such a young soul faces a world in which he or she feels a deep responsibility with no power or authority or sincere encouragement from adult society to do much of anything, really. Escapist scifi fantasies of virile space studs taking command may comfort some young readers. But if I didn’t exactly see myself in Holden Caulfield, he was a better fit than Buzz Lightyear, and spoke more eloquently to the world I was called, even then, to engage as salt and light.
Salinger had a more profound influence on my emerging psyche through his other works. Franny and Zooey, and the novellas and short stories which chronicled the lives of the Glass children, were important to me. What are the possible responses of young people “with great potential” (a mantra of a generation of well-intentioned educators and such) to the realities of a world in great pain?
Salinger wasn’t a hero for me, any more than his characters were. He was, it appears, deeply flawed. But I’ve had to deal with enough of my own flaws to appreciate him. Not every one of his characters was intended as a role model, but we see the members of the Glass family taking their world seriously and trying to find, occasionally, a redemptive place in it. Spiritual matters, whatever we make of them, matter. I’ll take that over the artificial activism of heroes void of internal lives any day.
“and … See More”
Dude, did you cut and paste this comment from somewhere else?
Sorry- I wrote it on a friend’s Facebook page first and forgot to check for glitches.
Haven’t you heard? Holden changed his name to Al Bundy. Maybe you saw him on TV.
schteve – appreciate the comments on the book, that’s something like what I took from it too. Still think the forehead-patting teacher guy was speaking for Salinger more than Holden was.
Still would like a recommendation for a starter Heinlein book from someone. I doubt it’s all Buzz Lightyear – I think you knew that too you were just responding in kind a bit.
True enough, Steve H. And while Heinlein and I never “grokked,” exactly, he’s a thoughtful writer, too. Thanks for the gentle reminder.
Try “The Moon Is A Harsh Misstriss”.
The way things are looking today it is, perhaps, prescient.
Steve H, I recomend that you start with the best of Heinlein’s juveniles: Have Space Suit—Will Travel (1958’s idea of what 1978 could have been), The Star Beast (interstellar diplomacy, with some dark humor that kids usually don’t notice), Citizen of the Galaxy (dang, but this would make a good Disney movie), or Time for the Stars (the relativitivistic twin paradox, pecking order, and interstellar exploration). These are called juveniles, but several of them were serialized in adult SF magazines before book publication; Heinlein’s recipe for a “juvenile” was to write the best damn story he could about a teenage protagonist, and then take out all references to sex.
Then try Methuselah’s Children, The Door into Summer, or Beyond This Horizon (all of which use advantage of the principle: “take one new concept that would change society, and play with it!”). Then there’s Double Star (the role of a lifetime!) or The Puppet Masters (Mickey Spillane meets alien invasion), and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (the American Revolution set in the lunar colonies, 2076).
Heinlein’s two most controversial novels were Starship Tropers (“Heinlein was a fascist militarist!”) and Stranger in a Strange Land (“Heinlein was an blasphemous, sex-obsessed hippie freak!”). Please remember Larry Niven’s dictum: “There is a technical, literary term for those who mistake the opinions and beliefs of characters in a novel for those of the author. The term is ‘idiot.'”
Except for Methuselah’s Children, I’d stay away from the Lazarus Long/World as Myth novels unless you’ve decided that you have a taste for Heinlein.
There’s a useful guide to Heinlein’s works on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_A._Heinlein_bibliography …
(P.S. for Steve H)
… and considering that this is the Catcher in the Rye discussion thread, I should have just told you to start with Have Space Suit—Will Travel. The viewpoint character is essentially an anti-Holden Caulfield.
I’ve been following you on Twitter for a long time, and just now found the blog. There’s something messed up about that.
SF was my teen love. So, where are all the juvy Heinlein’s of today? Specifically, where are all the middle grade science fiction books? I’ve yet to find a satisfying answer to this question, and thought you might have one?
“Specifically, where are all the middle grade science fiction books? I’ve yet to find a satisfying answer to this question”
It IS an excellent question. I’d like to know myself. I suspect that possibly all the would-be juvi-sci-fi writers are trying to strike juvi-fantasy gold a la ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘Twilight’?
The niche may have disappeared.
N.B., this may not be a bad thing. Just because two generations of SF readers got hooked by Heinlein juvies, doesn’t mean that’s the only gateway drug out there.
After all, the generation before Heinlein got hooked by Flash Gordon and Captain Planet. There’s nothing much like them today. And that’s just fine.
“remember Larry Niven’s dictum”
This from the guy who co-wrote _The Burning City_.
There’s not much question that _Stranger_ and (especially) _Starship Troopers_ contain large slabs of Heinlein’s own opinions and personal philosophy, more or less transcribed. Whether this makes them bad books or not is a question for another thread.
Scalzi said: “as a writer myself I look at the mechanics of everything I read and how the author is doing what he or she is doing. It’s an occupation hazard.”
True. When I was a kid, I’d ride in the car with my parents or the schoolbus and I just passively watched the scenery go by. But when I got my driver’s license, all that changed. I looked at the road differently, even as a passenger, I was thinking about how my dad would get from Point A to Point B, but before that it would never occur to me. Road conditions. Navigation. Traffic.
When I started writing a few years back I noticed the same change had occurred when I read. The days of just kicking back and devouring a book were over, now I was participating, critiquing, anticipating how s/he’d solve various writing problems that would never had occurred to me before.
I suspect that possibly all the would-be juvi-sci-fi writers are trying to strike juvi-fantasy gold a la ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘Twilight’?
Not all of them. Jerry Pournelle wrote a couple of SF juveniles, and Harry Turtledove has his Crosstime Traffic series, six books and counting. Don’t forget the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises, too.
And there are other fantasies suitable for teens than the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises. (Heck, I wouldn’t recommend the Twilight books to anyone; YMMV.) I love to hook unsuspecting readers of all ages on the Discworld books. Pratchett’s “Tiffany Aching” subseries is suitable for younger readers. I’ve been told that the Animorphs books have some merit as gateway drugs, too; the pre-teen children of a well-known SF author I know seemed to like them, and the kids have since gone on to the hard stuff.
There’s not much question that _Stranger_ and (especially) _Starship Troopers_ contain large slabs of Heinlein’s own opinions and personal philosophy, more or less transcribed.
Yeah. Especially the mutually contradictory parts.
Don’t get me wrong, I think his personal opinions do show up in his novels. But isn’t it odd that no two intelligent readers seem to agree on exactly which parts are his own beliefs and which parts are strawmen?
And there are other fantasies suitable for teens than the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises. (Heck, I wouldn’t recommend the Twilight books to anyone; YMMV.) I love to hook unsuspecting readers of all ages on the Discworld books.
Middle Grade is predominantly fantasy (The Lightning Thief, Artemis Fowl, The Magyk series, Series of Unfortunate Events). Young Adult is rife with angsty teen romance (ala Twilight), but there is beginning to be a lot of fantasy and even SF! (Westerfeld’s Uglies series is very successful)
I just reviewed Pratchett’s Only You Can Save Mankind as a great read for advanced middle graders. I’ll have to check out Animorphs and Turtledove!
Amen to that. I started reading the book with great expectations for all of its hyped rebelliousness. I was sorely disappointed by the protagonist. He spends most his time being a d*ck to people and spending his parents’ money.
Ah… here we go:
“Bunch of Phonies Mourn J.D. Salinger”